Society and Culture, Education

PISA in perspective

US Department of Education (Flickr) (CC by 2.0)

US Department of Education (Flickr) (CC by 2.0)

Today is Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) day, the triennial gnashing of teeth and rending of garments about the dismal state of American education. PISA day is a time for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to bask in the glory of its flagship product and for high level OECD bureaucrats to fly around the world revealing the future of countries based on the performance of their 15-year-olds on PISA and giving policy advice about how to improve a nation’s education system.

OECD loves to show off PISA in the US—because we are the biggest country in OECD and because we have generally avoided drinking the PISA Kool-Aid. However, be prepared for a big dose of PISA this year.

PISA day will include an official announcement by US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria on the international results of the PISA and a discussion on the implications for US education policy. And get ready for a very special presentation by Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General of the OECD (they do love titles in OECD-land. But I suppose all these titles sum up to less than what Amanda Ripley at the Atlantic once dubbed Mr. Schleicher: “The World’s Schoolmaster”).

Before we bemoan the coming catastrophe foretold by the mediocre performance of the US on PISA, some perspective, please.

Yes the US ranks right in the middle of the pack of all the dozens upon dozens of countries whose students take PISA. But remember, we have been in the middle of the pack for all administrations of PISA since 2000 and any change in our overall PISA scores is not statistically insignificant.

Being stuck in the middle is probably better than the fate of Finland, which was a perennial top scorer (second only to Korea in 2009 in math) but now, with declining math scores, finds itself in the neighborhood of Poland and below Estonia. All my friends who trekked to Finland to study the miracle of Finland’s education system now have to go elsewhere. Maybe they could save money and go to Massachusetts or Connecticut both of which did quite well on.

Or consider Israel. It ranks even lower than the US in mathematics literacy. But that doesn’t seem to have impaired its ability to become an entrepreneurial, high tech hot house. And of course we need to consider Japan—a perennial high scorer on PISA since 2000. Would the US trade its economy for Japan’s, with its two decades of stagnation? For that matter, would the US trade positions with Korea or Singapore, where fertility rates hover around 1.0 foretelling economic problems that the US with its growing population will mostly avoid.

The point is simple: after a nation achieves some level of literacy, other factors matter far more than a high PISA score. The US has a dynamic economy built on entrepreneurial ambitions, free flowing capital, the rule of law, the fairly certain enforcement of contracts, historically high levels of interpersonal trust, favorable demographics—and a large population inhabiting a very large, resource rich continent. While we could bemoan our relatively mediocre performance on PISA, we should really be far more concerned with how we are wrecking the political and cultural environment that has made us the envy of the world—despite our PISA scores. Let Japan and Belgium and Poland beat us on PISA. Who cares?

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One thought on “PISA in perspective

  1. Who cares that Japan, Belgium and Poland beat us in PISA? Anyone who cares about the quality of life that young people attending US schools right now will have when they enter a workplace without the skills that make them better value to employ than a machine…

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